Once upon a time, in the Land Before the Web, a young newspaper reporter walked into the Gazette newsroom, sat down at his desk and wrote his first story for the paper, which appeared the next day in the business section.
I’m happy to make your acquaintance, again. Older, certainly grayer, and if wiser, the evidence is my good sense to have spent the last 30 years working and living in Colorado Springs. Now the wheel comes ‘round and once again, in these pages or on your screen, I’ll be reporting on the region’s technology sector.
When I joined the G’s business desk three decades ago, mastodons such as Hewlett-Packard, Digital Equipment, and NCR strode the region’s tech landscape. That last one stood for National Cash Register. You remember cash. It was a thing.
It was a time when Colorado Springs fancied itself Silicon Mountain. The tech footprint was largely a manufacturing one. Super-clean fab rooms produced computer chips, circuit boards, dazzling 12-inch laser optical storage disks, and even Apple computers.
But manufacturers’ roots never have sunk widely across our rocky, sandy soil. Apple shut down its production line after a short run. Digital Equipment, its Ute Valley redoubt once a centerpiece of a Reagan-era Wall Street Journal profile of Colorado Springs as an emergent tech hotbed, quit making actual digital equipment years ago, then quit existing altogether. Cray Computer Corp. came and went from the Springs, as mysterious as a UFO, though a spinoff, SRC Computers Inc., lives on. Of course, Exhibit A in the case against local tech manufacturing is the former Intel chip factory: visible from space, briefly used for purpose, its work moved to Taiwan, and today a mix of government and private offices.
During my 23 years at the Gazette, I held a number of reporting and editing roles, concluding in 2011 as executive editor. During that time and since I’ve been out of the newsroom, the region’s tech landscape has transformed.
The 1987 Economic Census counted nine makers of semiconductors in Colorado Springs. The 2012 Economic Census — the most recent to be published — counted six. Thirty years ago, there were five local factories making equipment to test electrical circuits — oscilloscopes, integrated-circuit testers and the like. By 2012, three. For a generation, local high-tech manufacturing has been flat to down.
To find the growth, step out of the bunny suit. From the 1987 to the 2012 Economic Census, the number of computer-programming outfits in town has grown from 38 to 198. System design firms: from 11 to 233. Overall, the 2012 census counted more than 500 firms in the broadly defined “computer systems design” sector. Two things to know about that number: it was obtained just four years removed from the 2008 financial collapse, and it doesn’t really have a grip on the number of self-employed, one-person consultancies.
These numbers are broad indicators. They reveal a general picture. For finer and more current detail, I turned to Tatiana Bailey, director of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Economic Forum. She showed me the 10 job categories with the most openings in Colorado Springs. More than a third of those 8,400 openings are in software, systems and network engineering, as well as system administration. In Colorado Springs, tech is hungrier for workers than even health care. This, in a city that has always had something of a complex about its place in the hierarchy of American tech towns.
The game today is less silicon, and more code. It’s systems, and security. It’s space, and cyber. A good amount of that business is Pentagon-fed. Uncle Sam’s paychecks are not as sexy as the venture funding that fuels Silicon Valley, but neither are they as volatile. The military tech work here provides a foundation of grind-it-out economic stability that buttresses the higher-risk innovation in more commercial sectors. Military tech work tends to be purposely low-profile, even invisible to anyone without a security clearance. That includes me. But it is no less important to our economy for being quiet.
My role in this column, which marks a return to the beat where I began my Gazette career, is not to expose secrets but to explore the contours of the region’s technology economy, which is as vital as ever but much of which has migrated away from landmark production facilities to military bases, tech campuses and home offices.
I hope to introduce you to some of the people who populate our tech economy, and to some of their ideas. My purpose is not so much to explain technology, for I am as hopeless with a computer as the next poor slob. My purpose is to gradually tell a story about Colorado Springs, a story that isn’t complete without a chapter about this important contributor to the life of our city.
Let’s get started.
Jeff Thomas was a reporter and editor at The Gazette from 1988-2011. Currently he’s an editor for a nonprofit that supports Christians around the world who live under threat. Reach him via DM at @JTattheG, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.